I recently went hiking in Death Valley National Park by myself, during my solo travel adventure out West. Though I had started my hike just before 9 am, the temperatures rose well into the 90s (Fahrenheit), and it was already November. Some of the things I saw and experienced inspired me to write this beginner's guide to hiking.
It did a gorgeous loop hike in Death Valley going up Gower Gulch, then through a wash, up a series of hills for great vistas of the park, then down the way I came and into Golden Canyon (https://www.urquadventures.com/adventure-travel-blogs/two-amazing-days-of-hiking-and-sightseeing-in-death-valley-national-park). The views were spectacular and I felt I was in combined lunar and martian landscape. I had taken plenty of water knowing it would be very hot. I also had a detailed map from the Visitor’s Centre, but I was doing the hike counterclockwise, which the ranger had suggested, and the signage from that direction was a bit confusing. I couldn't find the junction I was supposed to turn left on, but since I have a pedometer on my phone I knew that according to the distance I had walked, I had to keep going. Soon enough, I found the junction, and a couple who was doing the loop the other way suggested I climb up the hills for some great views and do the longer loop. I was planning to do the shorter loop but decided to take their suggestion. This is where I got really disoriented, because according to them I could go back a different way from the viewpoint to the first junction, but according to my map, I had to come back the way I came.
After climbing up a steep hill to the viewpoint, I decided to just come back the way I came, because by then it was in the 90s and the sun was shining bright above me. I was worried if I kept going a way I had not come from and which the map said would not connect with my loop, I might be out walking a lot longer than I wanted to. Soon after that I met a group of young people hiking towards me and asked them if they were doing the clockwise or counterclockwise loop. Half said clockwise, the other half said counterclockwise. How could they have no idea in which direction they were hiking? Some pointed in one direction when I asked where they had started their hike, the others pointed somewhere else entirely. I decided to just trust my instincts and go back to the junction, where the sign clearly stated which way to continue to Golden Canyon and to the parking lot where I started. It was around 10.30 am and there was no shade on this part of the hike, and the temperature was probably already in the 90s. I didn't want to take a chance getting stuck out there longer than expected, and run out of water. So I came up with first rule of hiking: trust your instincts and don't rely on anyone else to tell you where you are or where to go.
On my way down, I saw people hiking up in black clothes, some people without backpacks, which meant they didn't have any water. I hiked to a place called Red Cathedral, a steep red sandstone cliff composed of loose rocks, and saw a bunch of kids just standing straight under the cliff face, unconcerned that a rock could fall on top of their heads!
Every time I go hiking in the National Parks (a place that attracts a lot of novice hikers) I realize how unprepared some hikers are and how easy it would be for them to get into a sketchy situation. I often see people wearing inappropriate footwear, I almost never see people hiking with poles or hats. I saw so several girls in Death Valley wearing as little as possible so they could get a great tan while hiking, in the desert! With nothing to protect their skin, they would burn and get heat stroke after a few hours. I realise some people just intend to do short out-and-back hikes so they neither dress appropriately nor take enough water, or a map, but one never knows if one is going to get lost and have to battle the elements, unprepared.
This bring me to the second rule of hiking: be prepared. I've hiked in the jungles of Central America and Southeast Asia, the Himalayas, the Atlas Mountains of Africa, the Andes in Ecuador, the Swiss, French, Austrian and Italian Alps, the Utah and Arizona desert (where I was the most scared when hiking), and for the last 3 years, in the Rocky Mountains and the High Sierras. These are the considerations and precautions I take under several categories based on my experience that help you be prepared for a day out in the wilderness.
WEATHER: I always check the forecast in advance and not just for the day I am hiking but for the day after if I am doing a long, difficult hike. If there is anything greater than a 5% chance of rain, I pack a rain jacket and rain pants or at least a long poncho (which is not very useful when there is a lot of wind). If it says it won't start raining until 5 pm, I assume the weather could move in quickly and plan to finish two hours before. I've been hiking in the summertime and found myself caught in a hailstorm when it said there was only a 5% chance of rain or that it would start raining at the end of the day. A 5% chance of rain doesn't actually mean that you have a 5% chance of getting caught in a rainstorm, but that there is 100% chance it might rain in 5% of the area where the weather is being forecasted, and you could be in it. If there is any chance I may get stuck out in the wilderness for an extra day, and there is bad weather forecast for the following day, I simply postpone my hike for another time. In addition to precipitation and temperature, I always check the wind speed. It may be a sunny day in the 50s, but if the wind is blowing at 30 mph, its going to feel like it’s in the 30s.
NAVIGATION: For navigation, I always carry a detailed map of where I am going, a phone or watch with an accurate pedometer that tells you mileage so you can follow the distances on the map, and a compass, which you need to learn how to use properly before you leave. Maps always tell you distance and direction, and often elevation gain, so if you at least know how far you've gone and in which direction you're going, it will be almost impossible to get lost.
One thing I always make the habit of doing, especially on a loop hike, is to note landmarks at my starting point and along the way, like a prominent peak or mountain range, so in case I get disoriented, I can always try to orient myself according to these landmarks. On an out and back it is harder to get lost, but I always note landmarks along the way, because you never know. On my iPhone I have an app called Maps.me, which shows you exactly where you are and geological landmarks (trails, peaks etc) even if you do not have a cell signal. But you need to have downloaded the map for that area ahead of time. This app can also show you direction and distance and it has been a lifesaver when I've been traveling abroad and didn't have a cell signal. You might also want to take a solar-powered phone charger with you so you can keep your phone battery charged. You can buy these for about 30 USD and they are relatively light weight. If you do get lost and need to get a phone signal climbing to the top of a mountain will usually get you at least one bar.
My boyfriend is a wilderness medic and I've heard from him and his buddies about people calling for rescue because they got off the trail for some reason and couldn't find their way back. This happens a lot more than you think. Recently this happened to me when I was hiking through a heavily wooded path because the trail wasn't well marked. I kept feeling I was going the wrong way and decided to turn back the way I'd come. Indeed I had taken the wrong turn, I just wished I had trusted my gut right away and turned back sooner. If you feel you are off trail turn around immediately. If you need to go to to the 'bathroom' just pick a nearby tree. Privacy isn't worth getting lost for!
Some people in remote areas like to carry a satellite communicator or emergency locator beacon with a GPS tracker though countries like India don't even allow these. If you can afford one and are allowed to have one, and are hiking somewhere that is completely out of cell phone reach it could be a good idea. However, my feeling is that if you use common sense practices and avoid hiking in dangerous locations (which I wouldn't do anyway), you don't really need one.
If I am hiking alone I always tell my family or boyfriend what hike I am doing and at what time I will write them to let them know I am back safely. I always tell them, if I am not back by ‘x’ time call for rescue!
WATER/FOOD: One of the most important things for wilderness survival is water. People usually take too little water on their hikes. On average, I drink half a litre (L) or a quart every 30 mins on a warm day, less when it is cold. I walk an average of 2 miles per hour, so for a 6 mile hike, I estimate to be out hiking for 3 hours, and will thus need 3 L of water (I take Nalgene bottles or insulated 1 L Thermos bottles if it is warm outside so the water stays cool; I keep one deep in my pack away from the heat). If I drink a litre right before I leave, I may do away with 2 L. That’s on a warm day. On an extremely hot day, I may take more, or make it a point to drink 1 L of water before I start hiking. If you have to stop and drink 15-20 mins into your hike, it means you are already dehydrated and didn't drink enough before the start.
I took a mountaineering course in the Alps many years ago, and our guide/instructor had us drink a lot of water the night before even if it meant getting up in the middle of the night to pee several times, and also a lot the morning before our excursions started. He said the most important thing was to hydrate BEFORE exercising and not just during. A physical therapist later told me that that is what all athletes do. On warm days I always put a little extra salt in my breakfast because continued perspiration will deplete your body of salts. I also always carry salty snacks, and a packet of electrolytes in my back in case I I start to feel tired and dizzy (classic signs of dehydration and mineral depletion), I can add a pack to my a L of water. In terms of food, I always have something substatial like a sandwich or a small hot meal in an insulated container, snack bars, trail mix, something sweet, and sometimes a piece of fruit. I always make sure I've had a substantial breakfast with plenty of protein before I leave. The last thing I want is to run out of energy while hiking!
EQUIPMENT/GEAR: I always read a detailed trail description of the hike and know what I am getting into in terms of the terrain. If I am going to be have to hike up and down some steep hills, I take a pair of hiking poles (I have a pair of carbon, collapsible Black Diamond poles I can just stick in my pack). If I am hiking on slick rock or potentially slippery trails I wear my approach shoes (trainers with a grippy Vibram rubber sole).
I always wear synthetics when I hike, both pants and top, and carry at least a windproof jacket, a long sleevetop to protect me against the sun or wind, and often a windproof vest. On hot days I forego a lot of the layers but always carry a long sleeve top to protect me from the heat (sunblock only goes so far). I always carry a cap or hat, if it is going to be very sunny, one with an ear/neck flap or a white brimmed hat (I have a Tilley hat that covers my neck and ears too). My boyfriend always likes to carry a light buff to protect his neck. I always carry SPF 30 sunblock and a 50 SPF sunstick and lip balm. Since these wear off when you sweat remember to re-apply often. I usually hike in pants no matter what the weather, mainly for protection (against the sun, cold, wind, insects, prickly bush, etc). I just wear light-coloured pants when it is warm, a darker pair when it is cold. The general rule is that the warmer it is, the lighter coloured clothes you should wear. In addition to seeing people hiking in all black clothes on a 90 degree heat at Death Valley, I saw people hiking in jeans. I never hike in cotton. If it rains cotton will stay wet. If it gets cold it will freeze. If you sweat, it won't breathe. Synthetics dry quickly. If its cold I just wear a pair of silk or light wool long underwear. If there is anything greater than a 5% chance of rain I carry a lightweight waterproof jacket, sometimes waterproof pants, or at least a long mid weight waterproof poncho.
REI has a good selection of hiking clothes and boots/shoes and it is always a good idea to go try these on before buying because different brands fit differently (I am a size 4 in some brands, 6 in another). Once I know what my favourite brands are and what size I typically wear in that brand, I start ordering them online during the sale season on Moosejaw, Mountain Steals, Backcountry, and REI Outlet, which sell several brands of clothing/shoes at great prices.
Since I am a fatalist, I always assume and prepare for the worst. Foremost in my mind is twisting an ankle several miles into my hike and not being able to get back before dark. Another possibility is that you will take a wrong turn somewhere and get lost and it will take you hours or days to find your way back to the trail (this happened to a woman hiking a short section of the Appalachian trail alone who went off trail to go to the bathroom and got lost for 3 weeks, sadly she passed away). So I always assume I will have to spend the night in the wilderness until I can either get out on my own or the rescue can get to me. I always carry a light-weight bivvy bag (short for bivouac or emergency shelter; sold at REI), a lighter in case I need to start a fire, a head lamp, a light-weight down jacket, a hat, and a pair of warm gloves. A lightweight UV pen for water purification could also be a good idea since it doesnt take much space. If the temperatures at night aren’t expected to go below the 60s, I don't bother with the warm layers, but I always carry my bivvy bag since it can also protect you from extreme heat.
In a small waterproof synthetic pouch I carry my headlamp, my compass, and small Swiss army knife. If I am hiking alone I take a small bottle of pepper spray (the other day I was hiking on my own and a creepy man kept trying to talk to me, so I put it in my vest pocket and had it ready for use if I had to - luckily I didn't!).
I used to have a packing list of what to put in my backpack, now I just leave two backpacks packed and ready to go, one for short hikes under 2 hours and one for longer, more serious hikes, so I never forget anything. I may decide to take some things out depending on the hike, but all my hiking gear and equipment always sits in a hiking box where it is easily accessible.
FIRST AID: In terms of first aid, my boyfriend and I often take a well-equipped first aid kit on hikes longer than 2-3 hours. I like to take the essentials: Benadryl in case I get bitten by something (50 mg usually does the trick). An anti-itch cream with 2% hydrocortisone is also a good idea. My boyfriend always carries an Epi-pen (he's a paramedic so he knows how to use it; I’m not sure I could). I also take a compression bandage and an anti-inflammatory pomade (diclofenac, which I bought in Europe), in case I sprain an ankle. A strap that can be used as a tourniquet and extra bandages is never a bad idea in case of bleeding. Some strong pain killers and anti-inflammatories are also good practice. I also have a super light shin split that weighs almost nothing, which is a good idea to have. Visine takes up no space and useful if something gets into your eye. More recently I've started taking an albuterol inhaler in case I have trouble breathing or encounter someone with asthma who needs it. I put everything in a small, waterproof first aid kit or ziplock bag.
I also have a small ziplock bag with toilet paper, hand sanitiser, a few wet wipes, and a tampon/pad because you never know what is going to happen in the wild!
WILDLIFE: I always ask local hikers or rangers what potentially threatening wildlife I may encounter. If there are bears I carry a canister of bear spray readily accessible (waist or chest strap; available at Ace Hardware) and a bear bell (or anything that makes noise when you walk, which usually earns me some attention on the trail). Know how and when to use it before you head out. The spray has a range of 9 meters, so if a bear is approaching me at a speed that will take 15 seconds for it to be within 9 meters of me, I would take it out, unlock the safety clip, and be ready to spray. There are several rules for what to do if you see a grizzly or black bear (they say for grizzlies you should play dead and for black bears you should try to scare them off by shouting, clapping, or throwing small rocks at their hind legs), but you should first try to slowly walk away while facing them and hope they do too. You may encounter moose (which are actually quite dangerous), or mountain lions, rattle snakes, etc. Be informed as to what you should do in case you encounter each of these types of animals as defence behaviours differ depending on the animal.
As I said earlier, the best way to ensure you have a safe and enjoyable hike is to be prepared. As a solo female traveler I tend to go on hiking adventures by myself so I am usually overly cautious. But I've also become more comfortable hiking alone than when I started hiking 8 years ago. Hiking is like anything else. The more times you do it the more comfortable you will feel in your surroundings and with your abilities, and you will spend less time worrying about what could go wrong and more time enjoying the beautiful views. I usually never hike with earphones because I like listening to nature, the leaves rustling in the wind, the birds chirping, or simply enjoying the quietude in a world where us humans find it hard to disconnect, but also because if someone or something approaches me I want to be aware of it. Last but not least, the benefits of hiking on your mental health have been well documented. It is also great exercise. The more you hike the fitter you'll become and the less painful and more enjoyable hiking will become. Hiking has become my favourite past time and the primary way I get exercise at home and when travelling. It is also one of the main activities I incorporate into my adventure holidays and alpine retreats.
Have fun and hike safe!